Friday, March 29, 2013

Taming the Beast—Revolutionize Your Piccolo Intonation!

Stephanie Mortimore
By Stephanie Mortimore
Piccoloist, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

Part I

Playing in tune is probably the most challenging part of playing the piccolo. If you struggle with tuning, don’t despair: every piccoloist wrestles with this issue occasionally, if not often. Learning some basic physics and simple math related to the principles of sound help you understand why and put you in a better position to address the problem. First, let’s get a few basic definitions out of the way.

Making Cents of it All

A cent is a unit of measure that stands for one hundredth of an equal tempered semi-tone. For example, there are 100 cents between A and A#, 100 cents between A# and B, and so on. In all, there are 1200 cents in each octave.

I’m Losing My Temper

Musical temperament is, quite simply, a system of tuning. Equal temperament describes a tuning system in which the twelve tones of the chromatic scale are divided into twelve equal intervals. Pianos are usually tuned using a variation on equal temperament. This system is used not because it sounds best but rather, it is a compromise which sacrifices true harmony for the convenience of allowing music to be played in any key and have it sound the same. Pianos are tuned using a variation on equal temperament called well temperament in which the piano tuner, starting from a base of equal temperament, stretches the octaves, making the lower octaves increasingly flatter, and the upper octaves increasingly sharper. It is important to remember this because, when played with piano, the high register of the piccolo will have to be slightly sharpened.

By contrast, orchestras generally play using just intonation. This system is based on the physics of sound waves and, by extension, the harmonic series, so it results in a purity and stability of harmony that is perceived as consonance by the human ear. When using just intonation, players adjust of all of the notes of the equal temperament scale by playing a few cents higher or lower depending on the note. By changing the notes in this way, the two notes in any interval become related by whole number frequency ratios. This technical definition may sound complicated, but in reality, playing with just intonation is something that seasoned orchestral musicians do as second nature. And it’s something you can train yourself to do using the simple tools described in the “Practical Application” section. Take a look at the chart below to see how equal tempered scales (both major and minor) must be altered, note by note, to become a scale in just intonation.

Click chart to enlarge

It Hertz My Ears

Sound is made up of waves which, if you could see them, would look very much like the waves you see when you visit the ocean. You have probably noticed that ocean waves vary a great deal­—from tiny waves quickly lapping the shore to massive ones slowly rolling in. It is exactly the same with sound waves. The more waves there are in a given period of time—independent of size—the higher the frequency.

In sound, frequency (which is measured in hertz) refers to the number of waves per second; in music, this corresponds to pitch. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch. For example, A440, or 440 Hz, refers to the A just above middle C. The A one octave above that is A880, or 880 Hz. If you keep going up by octaves, the hertz doubles with every leap.

This upward ascent brings us, eventually, into the highest realm of the piccolo range. While the next A in succession (A1760) is the top A on the flute, the highest A on the piccolo is twice that (A3520). Just to remind you, that’s 3,520 sound waves per second! Unfortunately for our poor ears, this is where piccolo players are required to hang out all the time.

Why is This Instrument So Hard to Play in Tune?

Again, the answer comes down to physics. When two concurrently played notes are close to—but not quite—a perfectly tuned unison, the sound waves interfere with one another and produce beats that can be heard as a distinct buzzing. As the notes approach each other in frequency, thus getting closer to a true unison, the buzzing slows. As they get further apart, the buzzing speeds up.

Now, using some simple math, let’s apply this knowledge to some theoretical orchestral situations. Let’s say you and a colleague are playing the flute and both of you are asked to play A440. Easy enough, you might say. But let’s assume you are having a bad day and, instead of playing perfectly in tune, you play the note 10 cents sharp. I won’t bore you with the more complicated math of cents-to-hertz conversion, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that when played 10 cents sharp, A440 becomes A443 (rounded to the nearest whole number)—a difference of 3Hz. You will produce 3 beats per second—not ideal, but not such a big problem.

Let’s compare that with a slightly different scenario. You and your colleague are now asked to switch to piccolo and to play, in unison, A3520, the highest A on the instrument. And let’s assume that your day still hasn’t improved and you play this note 10 cents sharp too. Your sharp note would actually be A3540—a difference of 20Hz. You will now produce 20 beats per second. Bzzzzzzzzz!! This can start to be really painful for everyone within earshot.

The unfairness of the situation becomes even more clear when you start looking around the orchestra. All of those other musicians (who at this point are glaring at you) don’t have anywhere near the same challenges as you, the poor piccoloist. Take the cellists for example. Pretend two cellists are attempting to play A220 (the A just below middle C) in unison. For them to be to be producing 20 beats per second, one of the cellists would have to be playing 150 cents sharp (or flat). That’s one-and-a-half semi-tones apart—the difference between an A and a really flat B. That’s one bad cellist.

We could go through the rest of the instruments of the orchestra in this same way but, while that might make us feel better, it should be clear by now why the piccolo is the most difficult of any instrument to play in tune. So what to do? Unfortunately, even though it’s not your fault, you still have to fix the problem.

In a well-meaning but misguided attempt, many players try to use the indicator on their tuner which shows them, visually, how many cents sharp or flat they are. The problem with this approach is threefold. Not only do most tuners register improperly for the high notes of the piccolo, but almost all of them use equal temperament. Because orchestras play using just intonation, tuning visually can be destructive to your ability to learn to play in tune with your colleagues. And most importantly, why would you want to train your eyes to do a job that your ears should be doing? Playing in tune has nothing to do with having perfect pitch. It is a learned skill. In order to learn the skill properly you have to train the right muscles. Think of it this way: You weren’t born knowing how to ride a bike. When you wanted to learn did you watch a video or read a book about it? No, you probably just went out and got on a bike. Similarly, when you want to learn how to play in tune, you have to train your ears, not your eyes. Fortunately, there is another way to make a difference in your intonation.

*Find out more next week in Part II of this series.  Click here to visit Stephanie Mortimore's artist profile on the Powell website.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Warming Up

Rachel Harewood
By Rachel Harewood - Flute Sales Specialist, Verne Q. Powell Flutes

When warming up, it’s always best to start slow and with the basics.  Long tones and scales are the most essential part of my warm up routine because I get to practice a little bit of everything.   

I start my long tone exercise on low B or C and follow the pattern of one whole note, followed by a half note a half step up.  I try to maintain the best tone quality and intonation I can throughout.  Along with abdominal support, it helps to have a tuner in front of me because it allows me to develop my sense of pitch in general.   When I reach the top of the flute’s register, I use the same whole note—half note pattern starting on high C and make my way back down to low C or B.  To align my breathing with my playing, I make sure to play each set of notes in one breath, trying to remain as relaxed in the shoulders as possible throughout.  To extend my breath a bit more, I add more whole notes to the beginning of the pattern and, again, maintain a single breath through each set.

A former teacher of mine always used to say, “If you know your scales you can play anything”.  That could not be truer.  Whether you play your scales in eighth notes or thirty-second notes, it is vital that you know them inside and out, backward and forward, major and minor.  Since practicing scales can be tedious, I like to make my scale practice fun by using the Trevor Wye Practice Books for the Flute.   This, however, is not the only option.  There are books and methods for everyone, and anything that will get those scales under your fingers will work just fine.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Step Up Flutes - Part III - More Options

In the final installment of Linda Fisher's guide to purchasing a step up flute, we look at two very popular options...

Question 6 - My child's teacher said something about a "Split E" -- what exactly is this?

Yellow arrow points to split E
Split E mechanism: Some flutes come standard with this feature, while others will have this option available for an additional charge.  This feature is an additional mechanism to the flute itself which involves extra key work.  Split E is used to help with the response to achieve a high register E without cracking.  Some players find this useful, while others do not like the additional weight it adds to the flute, the slight difference in intonation (the mechanism tends to flatten the higher register notes), or the additional key work associated with it.  Step Up flutes are only available with the split E mechanism if the flute has an offset G.

Question 7 - What is the C# trill key?

C# trill: the C# trill is another mechanism that is added to the flute to make the higher register trills much easier.  If you are going to audition for top orchestras in the country or be a professional player, this feature is a must have.  If you find a flute you like that meets your budget and has a C# trill mechanism, it is a worthwhile investment.  You cannot add the C# trill mechanism to the flute once it has been built.  Most step up flutes do not have this as an option, however, more and more manufacturers are recognizing the advantage and are including them on their intermediate flutes.  As you can see, there are many different options available for a step up flute.  The best advice is to set a budget and then have your child try as many flutes in that price range as they can.  Using the assistance of a trained professional in the decision making process is crucial.  Your child's teacher is a valuable resource -- after all, they are the ones most likely making the recommendation for a better flute, and they know your child's potential the best.

Yellow arrow points to C# trill

Friday, March 1, 2013

Step Up Flutes Part II - More Basics

In our last post, we shared some of Linda Fisher's guide to purchasing a step up flute.  Linda has been playing flute for 34 years, teaching for 27, and working at the Royalton Music Center for 25 years -- so she has certainly answered many questions from parents and students!  In this next section of her guide, she answers a few more questions about the basics...

Question 3 -- What is the difference between a silver plated and a solid silver flute?

If the whole flute is made out of silver, then it will produce and even different tone than a flute with just a silver headjoint and silver-plated body and foot.  Of course, this will usually increase the price of the flute as well.  However, if the difference in tone is significant, the extra money will be well-spent to upgrade at this point.  After all, you don't want to buy ANOTHER flute in a few years when your player outgrows this one -- unless your child is going to become a professional player!  Moving along further, let's take a look at the body of the instrument. Whether the flute is silver, silver-plated, or gold-plated (yes, there are gold-plated step up flutes!), there are many features available

In this photo Inline G (on the left), Offset G (on the right)
Question 4 -- What is the difference between inline G and offset G?

Inline G/Offset G key: Inline means the 3rd finger of the left hand stays "inline" with the other keys.  Offset means the 3rd finger of the left hand sets out, and some players find this more comfortable.  Typically, student level flutes have offset G because the player's hands have a hard time reaching for an inline G key.  Quite honestly, this is a player preference.

Question 5 -- Does it really matter what type of "arm" is on the keys?

Y Arms or French Arms:  If you look at the flute, there are a number of keys that the player does not press down.  For the keys that are pressed down by the player's fingers, the closing of the key is actually done by the middle of the pad of your finger.  Some flutes have an extension that reaches to the middle of the keys that are not pressed down -- these are called French arms.  This is to provide a consistent sealing of the pads.  With Y arms, the key is closed from the back of the key, rather than the middle.  Some flute players will notice a difference in the feel of the flute while others may not.

Close-up on offset G
Close-up on Y Arms
Close-up on French arms